Education: Teaching 21st century skills

Two years ago in his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the way the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) score is calculated will be changed as the Government moves to cut excessive competition among young children. Instead of an aggregate T-score which sorts children too finely, pupils will get a grade band. These grades will be converted into points for admission into secondary school.

Parents welcomed the change, as many felt the current system added to their children's stress over the exam that they sit at age 12.

But two years on, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has yet to reveal details of the new scoring system and when it will come into effect. Parents were disappointed when Mr Heng Swee Keat, in his last major interview as Education Minister in August, said the makeover of the PSLE is still some time away, with the announcement to come next year at the earliest.

But even as Mr Ng Chee Meng, the Acting Education Minister (Schools), works out the details, the more important question to ask is whether the PSLE should be done away with altogether.

A poll commissioned by The Straits Times last year found that only two in five Singaporeans thought the examination was necessary. One in five stated outright it was redundant, while the others were neutral.

Some notable education experts, too, have raised the same question. One is Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond. During a lecture here two years ago, she praised Singapore's education system, but when asked about the PSLE, she said the debate on the exam had raised two important questions. The first was the purpose of the exam and whether it was being used in the right way. The second was whether it was appropriate for children to take a high-stakes examination at age 12.

For policymakers, while the PSLE may be an efficient way to allocate priority for secondary school selection, a question that rears its head is: Does it stand in the way of more important objectives in education - to move parents' focus away from academic grades to educating the whole child?

Also, is it a fair means of assessment for children who suffer exam anxiety? What about late bloomers?

And what about the fact that the PSLE doesn't test 21st century skills that MOE is stressing, such as the ability to work in teams and connect with people from other cultures?


The other big issue in education that requires further work is SkillsFuture, a national movement started last year to provide Singaporeans with opportunities to develop to their fullest potential throughout life.

MOE officials have stressed that, increasingly, just having a degree won't do. It is not that qualifications don't matter. They must be the right qualifications that will enable young people to go further in their chosen careers. And this must be combined with deep skills and on-the-job experience.

The Earn and Learn scheme, where Institute of Technical Education (ITE) and polytechnic grads can work and further their qualifications at the same time, was one of the initiatives launched under SkillsFuture.

Mr Ong Ye Kung, the Acting Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills), recently said the pathways provided under SkillsFuture are part of the Government's effort to offer diverse choices to Singaporeans. He stressed that the education system is evolving to take into account the aspirations and talents of Singaporeans, but added that this has to also take into account economic and social changes taking place around the world as they have significant implications on higher education.

For example, the traditional lines between products and services are eroding. Mr Ong noted: "Today, one can offer a taxi service without owning any vehicles, offer hotel services without owning any rooms or buildings. And soon we may have a big successful university that has no classrooms."

However, a mindset change is needed - many students and parents continue to believe only a university degree will secure them a good future.

There have been some takers for the Earn and Learn schemes, but not in big numbers, such as the 39 who started on the logistics programme launched earlier this month. Probe the participants further and many will admit that they hope to go on to university once they complete the 12-month programme, where they earn $1,800 to $2,000 monthly salaries while studying for a specialist diploma.

"It's still not a degree," one participant said.

Going by application numbers to the six local universities this year and the increasing number of Singaporeans heading overseas, the degree chase is still on. Many quote job surveys which show a pay gap between degree holders and non-degree holders.

Since last year, the Government has taken steps to offer civil servants without degrees the same prospects as those who are university graduates.

These moves show that the Government is walking the talk. But private sector employers still have different - and higher - pay scales for graduates, and vary pay according to applicants' degree class.

The Government has to look into how these practices can be changed. And employers should also be encouraged to change their practice of paying less to non-graduates who perform the same job as graduates. Instead, they should pay and promote based on job scope and performance.

This article was first published on October 25, 2015.
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